Most patients facing an operation would of course prefer an experienced surgeon over one just learning the procedure.
But how, then, does a surgical student get the thousands of hours of practice necessary to gain confidence and expertise without putting people at risk?
Increasingly, the answer is being found in virtual simulators. That’s especially true in arthroscopy, a type of minimally invasive surgery on joints requiring the insertion of a camera and instruments into holes in a knee or shoulder. Such “closed” operations lend themselves particularly well to virtual simulation, because the real thing is done on a monitor anyway.
Dr. Mike Kremer, co-director of the Rush University Simulation Laboratory in Chicago, likens the simulators — hand grips that appear on the monitor as surgical instruments — to “a very high-level video game.”
“If the operator nicks the (simulated) liver, there is bleeding visible on the screen. It’s very responsive in terms of various kinds of complications that can occur,” he said. “What the operator sees and what they feel is very similar to what they see and feel in the operating room.”
The simulators are a luxury surgeons from previous generations couldn’t enjoy. Closed surgery had to be learned the old-fashioned way, with a lot of hand-holding on real patients and working on scarce and often expensive cadaver parts.